Some bicultural families have to deal with the decision of how, when, and if they should make their children be bilingual. They worry that if instead of helping their kids doing so, it may hurt them. Most people agree that in long terms, being bilingual is a great tool. Since most parents agree on that, not all agree on how early kids should be introduce to a second language. Should it be as soon as they are born, or first learn one language and then a second?
Growing Up in a Bilingual Family
Educators and psychologists will advice to introduce a second language when kids are under the age of 3. De Houwer, (1999) says “Brain imaging studies show that languages in bilingual infants are stored closer together in the brain than in later bilinguals. This means, learning another language after the age of 3 both takes greater effort and is treated differently by the brain compared to the child who acquires them simultaneously.” The earliest a child is exposed to a second language, the better. Contrary to what many parents think that their kids may get confused and end up not learning completely either language. For instance, there are cases of kids who were exposed to two languages and by the age of 6 they know very well both languages. And the people that learn a second language in an adult age, they are most likely to have an accent after several years of been speaking a foreigner language, and most likely they will have their accent for a lifetime.
Although, researches show that “The main reason for dominance in one language is that the child has had greater exposure to it and needs it more to communicate with people in the immediate environment” (Grosjean, 1983, p.209), and it is not usual that kids are exposed to two languages equally. There is usually one dominant language or mother language, and the minority language. This is why the minority language, should be balance by reading, dancing with music that has lyrics of the weaker language, watching TV shows and specially talking; conversational experiences are the most valuable, easy tool parents can used. The case of Mia, who is two years old, and William, a 4 years old boy who are more exposed to English than Spanish, the parents try to reinforce the weaker language by teaching them songs in the minority language and making up songs with stories that calls the kid’s attention. This method worked in many families, and the result is always positive. One of the most common frustrations in bilingual families is when their kids start mixing up two languages.
Children feel single out and this situation makes them feel uncomfortable, especially when there are people around who don’t understand what the child is saying, this will end frustrating the child and start to deny speaking in a language that is not common in their environment; “Parents, who naturally tend to interpret a mixed utterance as evidence of confusion when in fact the child is getting on with the task of building up two sets of patterns by making more and more subtle contrasts” (Harding-Esch, 2008, p.56-57). Kids are not conscientiously trying to mix up two languages, they do it because is natural, it is normal for a child to pick different words from each languages to express their feelings and thoughts. We, as a bilingual parents, should instead of focusing on the mistakes that our kids make, is praise their effort and enthusiasm on their ability to speak two different languages. There are many ways that we can help bilingual kids learn two or more languages, the most important probably is never give up and think that the kids are not understanding or listening to what we are saying.
They have busy minds, and while we think they are not listening or watching us, they are. Parents should use any opportunity to talk to them especially on the minority language. Make them feel that they are not different than majority language speakers. Getting them spend as much time possible with other minority speaker children by arranging play dates. Also, the bilingual kids should visit the country where the minority language is spoken. Cunningham, (2002, p.117), in her book In Growing up with Two Languages says, “The potential, advantages of this are manifold: The children get to know monolingual speakers of their own age, they learn to use their weaker language in different situations, they learn about the culture of the country”.
This will be a great boost for bilingual children, to be exposed to a total immersion to a different culture that they are not very use to. In chapter 14, Cognitive Functions, it is mentioned that “Early exposure to some language increases ability to learn another language later.” Also it is mentioned that children are better at pronunciation and grammar when they learn a second language early in age. There is not really disadvantage on learning a second language at any age but it is better to take advantage of the ability kids have to grasp almost anything during their first stages of life.
There is not evidence of negative effects of y learning at early age two languages or more. Instead, there are many evidences that children growing up with two languages have advantage over the ones that are not. As Grosjean says, “researchers have found that bilingualism is, after all, a great asset to the child”, and he continues, “Especially, in intelligence and cognitive growth, researchers stress the assets of bilingualism”. There is nothing to loose getting our kids to learn two languages, all what it requires is our patience and consistency.
Cunningham, U. & Anderson, S. (2002). Growing up with two languages: A practical Guide. New York: Taylor and Francis Group.
De Houwer, A. (1999). Two or more languages in Early Childhood. Retrieved from http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/earlychild.html Grosjean, F. (1992). Life with two languages. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Harding-Esch, E. & Riley, P. (2008). The bilingual family: A handbook for parents. New York: Cambridge University Press.